Two days after House Democrats began their formal impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway went on national television to assure viewers her boss did nothing wrong in his summer phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Then she went silent.
In the middle of the most consequential moment of Trump’s presidency, the sharp-tongued White House counselor, who’s been an indefatigable defender of the Republican leader ever since she took over his campaign in August 2016, appeared to have traded in her ubiquity on cable news for a behind-the-scenes role deep inside the West Wing. Her colleagues and White House allies began to notice.
Conway resurfaced briefly Friday morning for an appearance on Fox News, followed by a vibrant 25-minute exchange with reporters on the White House driveway. She spent both moments in front of the cameras defending herself after scolding a young female reporter in what she claimed was a private phone call, dismissing rumors that she is being considered for chief of staff and accusing House Democrats of ignoring due process standards in their march toward impeachment.
It was a quintessential Conway drive-by, replete with artful political spin and exaggerated comparisons. She said Trump would “probably have more rights” than he’s been afforded during the impeachment inquiry if he received “a parking ticket or moving violation,” and praised Mick Mulvaney’s “commendable” job as acting White House chief of staff while appearing to confirm that Trump has been soliciting advice about his top aide.
It was also the first time Conway has spoken to reporters outside the White House this month. That ended a 12-day hiatus from the airwaves and a month-long absence from the driveway — where she’s briefed reporters a dozen times since July — that led White House officials, Trump campaign aides and some of Conway’s biggest fans to ask themselves, “Where’s Kellyanne?”
That question emerged again Thursday night in the wake of reporting that Trump has recently considered designating a communications guru to steer the White House through impeachment. Conway, who did not respond to repeated requests for comment, was not mentioned in reports about the role.
“She’s nowhere to be seen and I think that’s deliberate,” said a Republican close to the White House.
If ever the president’s aides were given a reason to avoid coming to his defense, it likely happened during Mulvaney’s impromptu briefing at the White House last week. Hours after he seemingly confirmed that the White House withheld foreign aid to Ukraine as leverage to get political dirt on Trump’s opponents, Mulvaney was forced to conduct cleanup in a statement.
The episode underscored the risk Trump surrogates face each and every time they publicly defend the president, but it also illuminated how Conway has managed to shield herself from the bipartisan blowback Mulvaney encountered by avoiding the kinds of details that have become fodder for Democrats wielding subpoena power.
“In times like this, going in front of the media as a Trump surrogate means you can quickly get turned into a pretzel,” said a person close to Trump. “So the best way to deal with these circumstances is to be error-free, or just put your head down.”
Conway has attempted to do both. In her only two TV appearances since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the impeachment probe on Sept. 24, the former pollster has avoided discussing the mechanics of foreign assistance to Ukraine or the reason a transcript of Trump’s infamous call with Zelensky was almost immediately moved to a highly classified system overseen by the National Security Council.
“I’m not part of what the NSC or the situation room does with that,” Conway shot back, when asked about the transcript’s top-secret status by Fox News’ Martha MacCallum in an interview on Sept. 26.
Speaking to Fox News’ Maria Bartiromo on Oct. 13, Conway, who has repeatedly flouted ethics laws that are meant to restrict executive branch employees from skewering political candidates or promoting party loyalty, kept redirecting the conversation to focus on Biden and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Adam Schiff — once again avoiding the granular details related to the administration’s policy toward Ukraine.
“She has a law degree and understands that this is not your normal talking-points situation,” said a former White House official, who added that Conway and others are concerned “about going out and being contradicted” by the president.
As the impeachment inquiry has grown to include more documentation and sworn testimony from ex-administration officials, the apparent reluctance to defend the Trump’s actions has moved beyond his White House counselor to nearly every corner of Capitol Hill. In televised interviews, top administration officials and Senate Republicans have forcefully critiqued the integrity of the impeachment process by accusing Democrats of selectively leaking witness statements and ignoring the precedent set by previous presidential impeachments.
A resolution introduced Thursday by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), for example, condemned Democrats’ impeachment inquiry exclusively on the grounds that they have abandoned “more than a century’s worth of precedent and tradition in impeachment proceedings” and denied Trump the “basic fairness and due process accorded every American.” The resolution was signed by 44 of the Senate’s 53 Republican members and did not weigh in on the president’s actions that triggered the impeachment probe.
The absence of surrogates who are willing to repeatedly defend him on substance hasn’t gone unnoticed by Trump, who privately pressured Graham to do more to push back against the inquiry as chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sooner or later, the president is likely to notice that Conway — long seen as one of his most visible and forceful defenders — has also eschewed attention since the impeachment inquiry began, according to the former White House official.
“It’s easy to be a cheerleader when it’s easy, but when you’re the happy warrior and you’re suddenly not on air, it becomes obvious to a lot of folks very quickly,” the former official said.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine